Alex Graham on Broadcasting: All this concern over 'deceiving' viewers is creating a climate of fear
Monday 10 December 2007
Last week, the BBC announced that it would spend half a million pounds on courses designed to teach producers how to avoid deceiving viewers. Predictably perhaps, the newspapers took yet another opportunity to put in the boot. The Sun, inaccurately but inimitably, described the initiative as the BBC's "blunder course".
It is of course easy to be cynical about an initiative like this. And I suppose if you are a Sun journalist it must be hard to get your head around the idea of journalistic ethics at all.
The BBC's Safeguarding Trust initiative is surely to be welcomed. One of the few good things to come out of this annus horribilis is that the ethics of our profession are firmly back on the agenda and the moral purpose of what we do has once again become the subject of lively debate.
But doubts persist. There's talk of issuing "passports" to freelance producers who have completed the online modules being planned as part of the BBC training scheme. But can something as fundamental as integrity be imbued in the space of a two-hour course? And can the complexities of this issue be neatly contained within a set of multiple choice questions?
A few weeks ago I was sitting in the cutting room and suggested, in order to improve the pace of a film, that we remove several transitional scenes and simply cut from one story to another. There was no question of distorting chronology, but even so, the director asked quite seriously if we were now allowed to do that. I promised him that if necessary I would put my suggestion in writing so that if anyone was subsequently jailed for the decision it would be me.
People have sought to distinguish between deception (bad) and artifice (good). That's a helpful distinction, but it doesn't really do the job. The truth is (there's a good phrase for you!), television often relies not just on artifice but on the viewer's complicity in the process of deception, what the playwright William Congreve memorably called "the willing suspension of disbelief".
This is a not a question of ethics but of aesthetics. Above all, it's a question of the self-confidence that underpins the ability to innovate and take risks. Much of Wall to Wall's most memorable output has been predicated on playing not only with the medium but with the audience's expectations of that medium.
We once pitched a successful series of "fake" documentaries from the global smallpox outbreak of 2002 to the collapse of Britain's transport system in 2003 with the tagline "Everything in this film is true, it just hasn't happened yet".
We also made an Emmy-award winning film about George Orwell, the central premise of which was that, since there was no archive footage of Orwell to be found, we would simply use an actor to "fake" the major episodes in his life. Every word spoken by the actor was authentically Orwell but nearly everything else about the film was fake.
There was nothing particularly original in our approach. We were following in a great documentary tradition that goes back through Peter Watkins (The War Game) to Orson Welles (The War of the Worlds) and even, some would argue, all the way back to Robert Flaherty, whose Nanook of the North, hailed by many as the first documentary, contained many sequences that were restaged for the cameras. But would our films be commissioned in the current climate? I'm really not sure.
If an experienced and talented director can express such fundamental uncertainties about the grammar of television, it's clear that clarity is urgently needed. But there is a fear that broadcasters are motivated less by a desire to improve the quality of television and more by the desperate desire to impress regulators and politicians alike. And my concern is that the lasting legacy of the year just gone will not be a heightened sense of honesty but a heightened sense of fear. And fear of course is the enemy of creative risk.
Writers' strike is hurting LA badly
In the land of Betty, things are getting ugly. Some pessimistic estimates suggest that the US writers' strike could drag on well into 2008. From this side of the Atlantic, watching the parade of Hollywood stars joining the picket lines, it's easy to dismiss this dispute as a spat between profligate Hollywood studios and a bunch of pampered overpaid creatives. But visiting Los Angeles it very quickly becomes clear that LA is a company town; it's like Durham in the middle of the miners' strike. From the waiters in the near-empty restaurants of Beverly Hills to the dispatch riders who normally spend their days biking scripts to and from locations, the whole city is suffering.
At the heart of this dispute are the revenues, which may or may not accrue from the exploitation of content over so-called new media streaming and downloading via broadband and mobile. But there lies the problem. No one really knows how valuable these markets are likely to be and the fear on both sides is that concessions made now may never be recovered.
And estimates are that both sides may already have lost more money than they will ever recover from the rights they are arguing about. I approach this dispute with a powerful sense of djà vu. I spent much of my time last year negotiating with the UK broadcasters on behalf of the producers about precisely the issues at stake in the current dispute.
The talks were difficult and sometimes painful. But while neither side regards the deal we ended up with as perfect, neither did we think that issues justified taking the programmes themselves off the air. Maybe British industrial relations are not so bad after all.
Alex Graham is the chairman of the independent production body PACT and the chief executive of Wall to Wall productions
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